Salad Greens

Salad Greens

Heads and Leaves

Salad greens fall into two categories: Head and loose-leaf—a distinction that matters only in how you trim them; they all toss, dress, and cook the same way. The leaves of head lettuces and some other greens grow from a core, which must be removed along with the outer leaves. Loose-leaf greens grow in small bunches as opposed to tight, round heads. Their stems usually require trimming. Here are the most common for both worlds:

Romaine Lettuce Lots of crunch, more flavor than iceberg. A must for Caesars.

Iceberg Lettuce The tightly packed head that looks like a bowling ball. Crisp and watery; best mixed with other greens or served shredded as a garnish or cut into big wedges.

Boston Lettuce Small, loose heads with a soft, buttery texture; best dressed at the last moment.

Radicchio Gorgeous white and purple leaves curled around small, tight heads. Crunchy like cabbage but way more bitter.

Belgian Endive Long narrow heads with firm, crunchy, and elegant ivory leaves that are perfect for dipping.

Napa Cabbage A long-leafed cabbage with mild, tender leaves to use as lettuce or in stir-fries.

Spinach Delicious both raw and cooked. But be prepared: It shrinks a lot when heated.

Escarole Sturdy, jagged, full-flavored leaves that go from white at the center to dark green at the edges; fine raw but more delicate when cooked.

Arugula Crunchy-chewy; spicy, mustardy, and lovable.

Watercress Soft but peppery; use like spinach.

Frisée Wispy, jagged leaves; crisp and sharply bitter.

Dandelion Greens Dark green, long, narrow, jagged leaves that can be tough and bitter; best when young.

Mesclun A popular mixture of assorted delicate head and loose-leaf greens that may include some listed here along with varieties like mizuna, beet greens, and oak leaf, as well as herbs and flowers.

Buying, Preparing, and Storing Salad Greens

Look for firm, brightly colored leaves that show no signs of wilting. Browning or yellowing is a bad sign, as are greens that look limp, soggy, or (ugh) slimy. And if you’re buying packaged greens (I can’t stop you, though it’s not my first choice), peer into the container from every angle to get a good look.

Since virtually all greens are interchangeable, buy what’s in season and looks best. Locally grown greens should be your first choice whenever possible. In the dead of winter, when lettuce looks a little beaten up, I make salads with cabbage, kale, or other hearty, longer keeping greens.

To calculate quantities: Figure about 1½ pounds of greens will yield 6 to 8 cups of torn pieces, after trimming. That’s the amount used in most of the recipes that follow.

The window of freshness for most salad greens is short—a few days at most. If you can’t get to them right away, trim and rinse them in advance. A salad spinner makes this process incredibly easy, but owning one isn’t essential.

TRIM For heads, start by trimming off the tough core with a knife. Then remove the rough outer leaves and any hard, brown, or discolored parts with your hands. For loose-leaf greens, discard anything nasty, then trim off tough or damaged stems.

CUT Break the head apart and tear (or cut) the remaining leaves into bite-sized pieces so they’re 1 to 2 inches on all sides. The exception is if you’re drizzling dressing over a pile of leaves or a wedge instead of serving tossed salad; then leave them whole.

RINSE If you have a salad spinner, put the greens in the insert and fill the bowl with water. If not, use a stockpot with a colander or strainer set inside. Or just put the greens right in the pot of water and transfer them later to the colander to drain.

SWIRL AND REPEAT Loosen dirt and sand from the leaves with your hand. Then lift out the insert, pour out the water, and repeat once or twice. When this water looks clear and contains no trace of dirt, the greens are ready.

DRY To remove as much water as possible from the greens, you can give them a whirl in the salad spinner or gently pat, shake, and toss them with a clean towel. They should be fluffy, with only small drops of water visible.

STORE Put the dried greens in the fridge in the covered salad spinner; or wrap them loosely in towels, transfer the bundle to a plastic bag, and seal it loosely. Greens prepared these ways should keep in the refrigerator for 2 to 4 days.

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